Lake Wobegon—Where All the Children Are Above Average

Lake Wobegon—Where All the Children Are Above Average caps and gowns have been put away. Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance will remain silent until next year’s graduation. And once again the academic cycle starts for another group of students as they begin their journey to seek the holy grail of college acceptances. Yet, as we begin the new academic year, it may be a good time to step back and do some serious reflection on the kind of environment that parents and educators alike have created in our effort to get students accepted to selective colleges.

It starts with the pervasive attitude of parents pushing their children to excel. If a child demonstrates even a nodding ability in some academic discipline, there is the immediate leap of judgment that the child is “exceptional” or “gifted and talented.” Unfortunately, educators have also been victimized by this thinking; they experience the added pressure of parents wanting their children in accelerated courses, not to mention the ultimate label of being accused of negatively affecting a student’s self-esteem.

My thoughts above were prompted by a trend that caught my eye this past graduation season: the naming of the high school valedictorian. The traditional definition of “valedictorian,” according to Webster’s Dictionary, is “the student who has the highest grades in a graduating class and who gives a speech at graduation ceremonies.”  This definition appears to be changing, at least in number. This year, in Dublin, Ohio, there were 222 valedictorians among three high schools: 44 in one school, 82 in another, and an astounding 96 in the third school. In Orlando, Florida, 40 valedictorians were named. After doing a little research, I realized that this practice has been occurring in other parts of the country as well. In 2010, Colorado had eight high schools who crowned a total of 94 valedictorians.

The common response from principals defending the practice of naming multiple valedictorians is that it reduces pressure and competition among the students and is a more equitable way to honor achievement. I think it is time for a reality check. Last year the number of applications received by the eight Ivy League schools for the incoming class of 2019 was 261,157. Overall acceptance rate at Ivy League schools was 8.6%, otherwise known as a 91.4% rejection rate.

In the August 3rd edition of TIME magazine, there is a sobering article by Jeffrey Kluger entitled “In Praise of the Ordinary Child.The article provides plenty of food for thought for both parents and educators when dealing with the academic and emotional health of our children. His premise: it is time to rethink what it means for a child to be exceptional.

Kluger’s observation is profound: “Somewhere between the self-esteem building of going for the gold and the self-esteem crushing of the Ivy-or-die ethos, there has to be a place where kids can breathe, where they can have the freedom to do what they love—and where parents accustomed to pushing their children to excel can shake off the newly defined shame of having raised an ordinary child.” He further states, “No one is arguing for a generation of mediocre or underachieving kids—but plenty of people have begun arguing for a redefinition of what it means to achieve at all.”

Kluger’s suggestion in the article, which is supported by psychologists Jean Twenege from San Diego University and Laurie Kramer of the University of Illinois at Urban-Champagne and endorsed by James Rosenbaum, professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University, is that there has to be “a much larger national conversation about just what higher education means and when it’s needed at all.”

The thinking here is not that radical; educators have been saying for years that the four-year college is not the panacea. But counselors get pressure both from parents and administrators if they discuss any kind of post-secondary education other than a four-year college. It is interpreted that to entertain any associate or sub-baccalaureate degrees would only lower expectations.

Somehow, in our academic dialogues and deliberations, we have to recapture the essence of what education is all about. We also need to educate our parents as well. The parent as the primary educator and the educator as the supportive partner must respect, celebrate, and nurture the inherent abilities of the child. This then translates into stoking the enthusiasm of the child’s natural interests and desires to thrive on whatever journey they decide to travel. It can be exceptional, but not any less if it happens to be ordinary.


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